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Horses: Their Sense of Feel and Touch

Toknowinfo is a counselor and freelance writer with years of online writing experience, with writing that covers a large range of topics.

Acute Sensitivity of Horses

Horses are sensitive animals, especially when it comes to the sense of touch. It is the most direct form of communication between horses and people. It is important that people understand and be aware of how a horse responds to touch. Horses respond to pressure by moving away in a predictable response.

From a horse’s skin, to their lips, their hair, their nose, and their muzzle, touch is their most acute sense. A horse is so sensitive to touch, a horse can sense a fly anywhere it lands on a single hair, and twitch that particular muscle to get the fly off of them.

Age, Breed, Training: Different Sensitivities

Touch plays a part socially for these herd animals. They need contact with other horses through daily rituals of nudging, playing, and grooming. Touch plays a part in their happiness, their general well-being, and their sense of security.

The skin is the largest organ on a horse’s body, just as it on a person. Their skin has several jobs—providing a protective barrier, regulating temperature, and a sense of touch. Different breeds have different skin thickness. The skin has three layers, the epidermis, which is the outermost layer, the dermis, which is the middle layer, and the subcutis, which is the innermost layer.

Some breeds are more sensitive than others. A thoroughbred horse has the thinnest skin. A draft horse has one of the thickest. This will make some horses more sensitive to touch than others. Different breeds also have different coat thickness.

How sensitive a horse is, depends on age, training and breed. A horse that is highly sensitive to touch with gentle and light training will usually stay that way. Older horses tend to be less sensitive to touch. Touch has a lot to do with training and riding horses—horses can learn to stop on cues, to go, and to turn when rider shifts their weight.

Horses can sense pressure, pain, vibration, heat, and cold.

Horses can sense pressure, pain, vibration, heat, and cold.

Importance of a Horse's Sense of Touch

Horses show affection with people and other horses by touching, grooming, and nuzzling. As herd animals, horses need to touch to know that other horses are at their sides. Touch, it is believed, also helps them move along together and helps them to be more cohesive in times of danger. Horses also initiate touch for mutual grooming among each other.

Horses will accept a new or strange object more readily when it is allowed to touch the item with their nose or their foot.

In addition to being responsive to pressure and pain, horses can also sense vibration, heat and cold.

The horse usually prefers to be stroked rather than patted by gently massaging their head and going in a circular motion.

The horse uses their lips as their sense of touch to avoid eating certain foods.

The muzzle has nerve endings, making it highly sensitive.

Horses learn about their environment through touch.

Horses learn about their environment through touch.

A Horse's Muzzle and Whiskers

The horse learns more about the world around them through their mouth and muzzle. A mare will brush her foal with her muzzle as a gesture of reassurance.

The muzzle whiskers of a horse are extremely useful to help them navigate themselves around objects. Their whiskers help a horse estimate the distance between their muzzle and objects around them.

Since a horse can’t see angles below their head, whiskers help guide the horse and help them explore and identify objects. The muzzle whiskers also help protect the horse’s nose and lips from touching things that may harm it.

Muzzle whiskers work with the horse’s sense of touch. Thoroughbred horses have the thinnest skin of all breeds of horses, making them the most sensitive to touch. Their whiskers help them identify objects that are beneath their nose and feel the texture of food. They also have whiskers above their eyes, which help them know if there is anything close to their eyes.

When a horse eats, their whiskers and their lips guide them towards the food they like to eat, and away from undesirable food or things that are around it.

Horses use their whiskers on their upper and lower lip to explore environment. Concentrated sensory receptors by the lips help a horse discriminate between textures.

Horses whose vision becomes impaired rely on their other senses to compensate. Their muzzle whiskers help them understand their surroundings, map their landscape, and pick up detail about their environment that make the horse feel safe and give it security among familiar things.

The whiskers (known as vibrissae) around the horse's eyes and muzzle have a lot of nerve endings. Vibrissae let the horse know how close they are to something. Through their whiskers and lips, a horse gathers a tremendous amount of tactile information.

Horses Communicate With Each Other

Horses use touch between horses when they are within close range of each other. Touch encourages and maintains bonding while horses are grooming each other. Touch is also a form of social support when horses feel stressed. Foals press their bodies against their mother when frightened.

Horses scratch each other with their teeth, especially in areas that the other horse can’t reach themselves, as a sign of friendship.

Touch is important in the courtship ritual between horses. Herd relationships are reinforced with mutual grooming.

Horses socialize through their sense of touch.

Horses socialize through their sense of touch.

Grooming a Horse

Domesticated horses usually like to be groomed and massaged because it raises the production of their hormones and benefits their nervous system. Some horses are uncomfortable when being touched.

Grooming a horse is a bonding experience for both the person and the horse.

The area of the horse that is most sensitive is the head. Some areas of the horse are more sensitive than others. The crest of the neck and the upper portion of the tail are less sensitive areas to touch.

The most sensitive areas to touch on a horse are near the eyes, ears, nose and head. The reason these areas are the most sensitive is because seeing, hearing, and smelling are the important senses a horse uses to protect itself against predators. The horse is also very sensitive to touch by the withers (the ridge between the shoulder bones of a horse), back ribs, flanks, stomach, and legs.

Between human and horse, touch is the main way to communicate. A horse can feel each movement of rider on their back. They can tell the difference of subtle weight shifts or the slightest of movements of the reins.

Horseback Riders Use Touch to Communicate

Horses are so sensitive to touch that they react to pressures too light for people to feel. Horses are prey animals, and are very sensitive to anything touching their bodies. Innately, they will react by quickly moving away from something touching them.

The sense of touch is important between a horseback rider and the horse. When a person is riding a horse, touch becomes a key communication tool between the person and the horse. A horse’s sense of touch makes them sensitive to pain, pressure, and temperature.

When a horseback rider uses their legs to get a horse moving, they are using the horses' innate sensitivity to touch to communicate. A horse is very sensitive to weight shifts by the rider. Exaggerated weight shifts can throw the horse off balance. Sitting up straight and sitting deep in the saddle is necessary, which is why the rider's position is very important.

A horse’s sense of touch is their primary method of communication with other horses and with each other. Understanding this is important and useful in our interaction with horses. A rider uses leg pressures to tell a horse the direction they want to go, and how fast or slow.

Horses can easily become desensitized if they are mishandled and continually treated harshly in the areas they are sensitive to touch.

In training a horse, touch and hearing are the two most used senses.

Riders use touch to communicate with horses.

Riders use touch to communicate with horses.

More Sensitive Than People

Horses use their sense of touch with their noses to explore objects.

In a several studies done in 2002 and 2008 to see how sensitive horses are to touch, it was found that horses reacted to tactile stimuli that was too light for a person to feel.

People communicate with horses through touch. Horses are respond and are trained by gentle but firm touching, mostly through pressure in the sensitive areas on the horse’s body.

Horses can feel energy from other horses and from a person. Horses will often mirror the feelings of their rider and respond. People view emotions differently than horses do. We may mask our feelings.

But in the presence of a horse, these animals can sense the way we really are. When a person interacts with a horse, they become part of the horse’s environment, and that person ultimately becomes a herd member.

Horses have a strong need for touch

Horses have a strong need for touch

Did You Know?

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. Do horses prefer to drink running water or still water?
    • still water
    • running water
    • both equally
  2. Do horses sweat?
    • yes
    • no
  3. Can a newborn horse recognize their mother by her voice?
    • yes
    • no

Answer Key

  1. still water
  2. yes
  3. yes
Mares and foals rely on their sense of touch.

Mares and foals rely on their sense of touch.

Horses Are Amazing Animals

The horse has a tough skin, tougher than people's skin, but a horse's hide is filled with nerve endings that make touch an important sense for equines.

The epidermis of a horse, like that of a person, is the largest organ of the body. Horses are extremely sensitive to pressure, vibration, pain, heat, and

In addition to their acute sense of touch, horses also feel a full range of emotions. Because of this sensitivity, horses work well with adults and children in therapeutic settings to help people physically and emotionally.

Horses are amazing animals. They have superior use of their five senses. Their sense of touch give them the ability to explore their environment, protect themselves from predators, and know where a fly precisely landed on their body to shoo it off.

Their innate ability to sense the emotions of other horses and of people serves them and us. This ability to sense emotions makes horses wonderful useful as service animals and as man’s companion.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.


toknowinfo (author) on October 26, 2014:

Hi Jaye, All of the senses of horses are amazing. Touch has a lot to do with their socialness with other horses and with people. Their whiskers are similar to a dog's an a cat's too. The whiskers of tell an animal if their body will fit in a certain area.

Jaye Denman from Deep South, USA on October 26, 2014:

This is very interesting! I'm especially intrigued to learn the importance of a horse's muzzle whiskers to enable the animal to map the environment. (This is also true of a dog that goes blind.) That horses respond positively to touch from other horses and (if touched appropriately) from humans shows that they share this sensory need with humans.

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